Friday, June 4, 2010

Let's Talk About Electronic Billboards! *

See also Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. The meeting continued thereafter, largely comprised of question & answer and some comment.


The Department of City Planning developed in Aug. '09 draft amendments to the City's Code regulating what we know as electronic signs and billboards. It then forwarded these draft proposals to Clarion Associates and Clanton Associates, who collaborated to produce a review of these revisions. These works were presented at a public meeting this week.

The Department's final draft, based on their consultants' input and others, will be presented at a similar meeting at the end of the summer. Then it will face a hearing before the Planning Commission, followed by consideration by City Council and then the mayor for signature.

If I understand correctly...
Use caution from here on out:

City Planning's proposal would allow off-site electronic signs such as electronic billboard advertising ONLY in areas zoned for industrial use AND NOT where they would be visible from the rivers. A zoning map reveals that the bulk of industrial zoned area is actually right along the rivers. The Golden Triangle, and by extension the Grant Street Transportation Center, would not allow for these types of electronic signs under the proposed rules.

The consultants made clear in the report that one option the city "should seriously consider" is declining to allow electronic signs at all. They cited this as one trend among cities. However the Planning Department does not recommend this.

Legally, banning all off-site electronic signs would be a surefire slam dunk, yet more permissive but creatively restrictive legislation becomes dicey when a community desires to ban certain types of content, to limit the privilege to certain types of users, or to somehow control for aesthetics. (There was some discussion in the gallery of utilizing "sight lines" in guidelines and getting the Art Commission to play a role.)

As far as legislative options and customization, the much-celebrated lighting consultant encouraged everyone to measure and to think about light deeply and properly. Superior technology was showcased to measure "nits" of luminescence with precision and reliability, and we were warned to mind tricks that the brain plays in interpreting brightness and thresholds of distraction and irritation. This seemed to be the area toward which creative thinkers were encouraged to tinker.

The man from the Planning Department and the legal consultant both agreed that the City code as it exists is "silent" on regulating electronic signs. A surprising variety of others in the room agreed and no one disagreed.

The newly proposed rules contain two definitions, each of which expand upon what is now just one:

“Electronic Sign means any sign with text or graphics generated by electronic components, including but not limited to light emitting diode (“LED”) and plasma displays, or any other past or future technology.”

“Electronic Message Sign means a sign with changing text or graphics generated by electronic components, including but not limited to light emitting diode (“LED”) and plasma displays, or any other past or future technology. Electronic message signs shall provide information such as current date, time, weather, and news updates or any information permitted in a business sign, as defined herein. Electronic message signs shall not contain any text or graphics permitted only in advertising signs.

The new verbiage about "any other past or future technology" appears to address all the rampant confusion some perceive to be in our code. And our consultants understandably comment:

It is not clear why a separate definition for "electronic message signs" is proposed but not for other types (e.g., there is no definition of “electronic business and identification signs”—they are simply assumed to be business and identification signs that are electronic). Either each type of sign should have a separate definition for an electronic sign of that type or there should be a general statement in the definition section that one form of any type of sign can be electronic.

One can surmise from this that the Planning Department believes it is important for its interpretation of the present code to remain consistent with that which was explained in public by previous planning officials -- and it is continuing to frame new legislation to pay heed to this classic interpretation.

It is unclear whether some of the types of review which exist in the present code -- conditional use approval by City Council, for example -- would withstand a legal challenge.

*-UPDATE: It appears that the new regs would have electronic advertising signs be approved as Special Exceptions by the Zoning Board of Adjustment. It does not appear that anything like Conditional Use approval involving either the Planning Commission or City Council would any longer come into play.

An attorney for Lamar commented that the proposed regulations are illegally restrictive and subjective. One should wonder what he thinks of the evidently even more restrictive regime his client currently operates under through this purportedly "silent" code.

Even more speculative:

It's conceivable that the regulations Pittsburgh traditionally enforced on electronic signage have always been legally flimsy. Given the expense of the technology and full cost of fighting and losing in court, it was simply never challenged. However once a single advertising company bought up almost all of the billboard stock in the City and began asserting a right to transform them to electronics, neither the City nor the company desired to go to court to actually test their legal bluster. So instead they amicably managed the tension by making off-record "deals" with one other which reduced or cut out: some vintage billboard stock, all other electronic advertising vendors, many political challengers and most due process rights of citizens.

Now however we actually have to come up with enforceable rules with which to govern ourselves -- and it seems as though the city's planning department is intent on allowing more electronic billboards than we have now with less review, while still barring them from a large portion of the city and from a lot more places than the company claims and/or feels to which it has a right.


  1. Whatta full-circle week it's been! I'm feeling all nostalgic, wanna scotch and a cigar?
    Who is Lamar's local legal counsel?And, what Chicago alderman is gonna come 'round and help Council and us citizen schmoes fight for your (our) right to par-ty? Seriously, since we might gleen a thing or two from others' municipal gaffs, what've other River Cities done?
    Full disclosure: as a founding member of RCTCConsultants, I have interests in all matters lurid and visual. I don't understand this no-fly zone along the rivers. It's not like they're pristine or anything- we could employ the LED billboards to notify sailors, etc. of perilous river conditions and our inability to rectify our shitty water problem!

  2. Lamar's local legal counsel is Kamen & Kamen. How's this for nostalgia, the original JV was there, with Kamen the Elder on one arm and Susan Tymoczko on the other.

    The Riverlife Task Force (sorry, Riverlife) helped pick the consultants, and voiced concern at the meeting about protecting views from the river, so there's where that came from. Have to hand it to them, the industrial zone / no river sandwich is clever, though looking at the map there was a murmur in the crowd, "Someone better organize Mt. Washington around this!!"